Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on July 20, 2022

After wearing weaves and subjecting her hair to regular heat styling, Tammy Porter’s stylist convinced her to allow her natural curls to shine through. “As a Black woman, I didn’t want to live up to European beauty standards,” says Porter of Carson, CA. “I also didn’t want to spend my life in the beauty salon and at the time the natural hair community was booming!”

So Porter, 41, launched a 5-year journey to shift from chemical relaxers, heat styling, and extensions to her natural curls. She was a new mom and corporate executive when she decided to give color a try again.

She hadn’t colored her hair in years. “I loved my hair blond, but I was nervous,” Porter says. “Like a lot of people, I had some bad color experiences. As a natural girl, I saw it change my curl pattern and damage my darker hair.”

For Porter and many people of color, wearing their hair in a natural state means no chemical relaxers or any major chemicals that would alter their natural curl pattern. Textures in their natural state vary from tight coils to loose waves.

Many have tales of hair color treatment gone wrong. But as science improves and stylists become more skilled at treating your tresses, there’s no need to cower from color.

To keep your coils popping and healthy when you color your hair, consider these questions first.

Are Your Hair and Scalp Healthy?

Black people have hair that tends to be coarser and drier.

Time can take a toll. So can some hair treatments. You can go from diva to damage in no time.

“Your hair shaft is not as hardy as you age and coloring for years can cause some issues,” says Amy McMichael, MD, FAAD, a dermatology professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC.

If your hair is very dry, breaking, and overall not on its A-game, it’s best to hold off on color until you get your tresses the TLC they need.

“I suggest my patients handle any skin or scalp issues before coloring their hair,” McMichael says.

Talk to your doctor about how your health may be causing issues with your scalp. A dermatologist focuses on skin, nails, and hair issues and can prescribe medications or treatments like medicated shampoos to help turn things around.

The crown of your head may not be the only thing to check if you’re prepping for color. “I ask my clients if they are taking medications before doing a color treatment,” says Debra Dye Brown (yes, her real name), a master cosmetologist in Atlanta.

Brown says certain medications – like those for high blood pressure, certain hormones, or steroids – can impact how well hair color works and, in some cases, cause a reaction. “If you think about it, some drug tests require a strand of hair because what you put in your body will often show up there,” Brown says.

Where you are in life – whether going through menopause or a high-stress period – is a factor in how your color journey unfolds. Talk to your stylist about all of it. You’re in their chair to share after all.

Did You Find a Professional?

Unless you made all A’s in advanced chemistry, it may be best to leave the hair dyeing process (especially if going lighter) to the pros. “The box of color doesn’t know anything about your hair that I would as an expert,” says Milena Ghattas, celebrity colorist in Beverly Hills, CA. “Coloring your hair at home for years may be causing damage over time even if you can’t see it.”

A trained colorist will know how to assess your hair, health, and lifestyle to help you make a plan. Do your homework to find a licensed colorist and check out their social media pages to see if they can color hair that looks like yours.

Hair color is, well, colorblind. “The process of coloring the hair is the same for everyone,” McMichael says. “It involves poking holes in the hair to allow the color to seep in.” (Those “holes” are made with chemicals.)

Natural hair may crave more moisture in general and even more if color is applied. Also, color can loosen the curl pattern – but only temporarily if done right, Ghattas says – on natural hair.

While natural hair comes in all textures and shades, many people of color have darker hair colors (with more red and gold undertones). Taking hair from dark to light involves the most chemicals (bleaching) and can be more damaging than going from light to dark.

Are You Doing Too Much?

It’s not a good idea to do all your styling changes at one time. Using a relaxer, color, and heat styling in one setting can be a bad idea. Give you hair a break between services and try to do other services at least 2 weeks before color.

A less permanent but gentler option is a semi- or demi-color instead of a permanent color. Semi- and demi-colors (not to be confused with rinses that wash the color out each week) will fade in 6-8 weeks, but have less chemicals that can damage the hair and don’t penetrate the hair shaft like permanent colors. Permanent color has to grow out or be cut out.

What’s Your Color History?

Pros like Ghattas and Brown will ask new clients about their prior moments with color. “I want to know if you did a temp color recently or if you’ve colored your hair for years,” Ghattas says. “I ask about how your hair responded in the past and we talk about your starting point and end point.” You’re unique and so is your hair.

Did You Do a Strand Test?

Will that shade of dark brown turn your hair green? Will this light blond even work for you?

Strand tests show how your hair will react – before you try it on your entire head. It also helps your colorist find out if the color will work, how much it may affect your curl pattern, and if your hair is too fragile for the look you want.

Permanent Color or Not?

Researchers have been studying the safety of hair color for years. In 2019, researchers from the National Institutes of Health reported that women who regularly used permanent hair color were more likely to get breast cancer than those who don’t – and the risk was higher among Black women compared with white women. It’s not clear why. Semi-permanent or temporary hair color weren’t linked to breast cancer risk in the study.

The finding was based on data on more than 46,000 U.S. women ages 35-74, including 55% who used permanent hair color. The women were followed for 8 years, on average. The study does not prove that hair color caused anyone’s cancer.

Many hair dyes contain chemicals like ammonia or hydrogen peroxide, which can cause skin irritation, redness, and other health problems.

If you’re concerned about chemicals in hair dye, talk to your stylist about switching up your hair dye products or ask your doctor about whether the chemicals are OK for you. If you’re looking at henna as an alternative, it’s a milder form of hair dye, compared with permanent dyes, and it’s less likely to cause allergic reactions. But it can still be irritating to some people, McMichael notes.

How Are You Showing Your Hair Some Love?

Along with your new color, you’ll want a solid plan to keep your coils healthy.

“Keep your hair trimmed. Every 3 months is best,” Ghattas says. “You also want to keep up with moisture treatments and keep your hair hydrated.”

Porter, who has been happy with her color (done by Ghattas), is serious about keeping her hair healthy. “I condition my hair regularly and before color. I don’t use heavy products so the color can penetrate better, and I use a moisturizing shampoo,” she says.

Another tip: Use a sulfate-free shampoo to avoid drying out your hair and fading your new color.

Whether covering your gray strands or getting over a style rut, dyeing your hair – when done right – can give you the pop of color you crave.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Tammy Porter, Carson, CA.

Amy McMichael, MD, FAAD, professor of dermatology, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC.

Academy of Dermatology Association: "What is a Dermatologist?"

Debra Dye Brown, master cosmetologist, Atlanta.

Milena Ghattas, celebrity colorist, Beverly Hills, CA.

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "10 Hair Care Habits That Can Damage Your Hair."

Cleveland Clinic: "Hair Dye Safety: What You Need to Know About Salon and Box Color."

International Journal of Cancer, “Hair dye and chemical straightener use and breast cancer risk in a large US population of black and white women.”

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